Dedicated teams make Residency Match Day memorable

March 11, 2024

Hard work, months of planning go into ensuring Match Day, one of the most important events in a young doctor’s career, rises to the occasion.

A crowd of people stands outside with confetti flying in the air. Lots of balloons decorate the space.

Years ago, Match Day was a humble affair taking place inside an auditorium, but the event has morphed into an impressive celebration at both University of Arizona campuses in Tucson and Phoenix.

Anesa Castillo short-circuited when it came to planning her wedding.

Anesa Castillo, Virginia Zazueta-Blackman and Ross Dubois stand in front of a vase of red roses with the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson logo behind them on the wall.

(From left) Anesa Castillo, Virginia Zazueta-Blackman and Ross Dubois are part of the team that plans the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Match Day which takes place in front of Old Main.

“I was so stressed, I ended up going to Vegas,” said Castillo, lead coordinator of student affairs for the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine – Tucson

Yet here she is, part of the team planning the biggest event for fourth-year medical students – Match Day.

The strain is worth it, Castillo said, especially when she looks out over the crowd outside Old Main a little after 9 a.m. on that third Friday of March. 

“You see the excitement on their faces and their families are so excited. It’s very heartwarming,” said Castillo, who has watched these future doctors during their journey through the residency application process. “I look at the students and they’re crying and hugging their parents and I get teary. This is all they worked for, and it paid off.”

Staff, faculty and students spend at least six months organizing the greatest show on UArizona’s two medical school campuses. Some organizers say it’s like planning a wedding, except each wedding has about a hundred brides and grooms. 

“The pressure is immense,” said Kate Chartrand, manager of student engagement for the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and a Match Day planner since 2021. “But it’s also a tremendous honor to be a part of their special day and witness their achievements.”

Making a Match 

Match Day always falls on the third Friday in March, the culmination of a lengthy process that pairs the nation’s graduating medical students with residency programs. During the first half of their fourth year, students apply for positions and interview with program directors, faculty and residents.

In February, students submit their list of choices, ranked in order of preference. Residency program directors do the same, submitting their own ranked list of preferred candidates to the National Resident Matching Program, which uses a computerized algorithm to make the best couplings for soon-to-be-graduates and their programs. 

Then at 9 a.m. PT (noon ET) on Match Day, students across the country simultaneously learn where they’ll spend the next three to seven years of their careers as physicians in specialized residency training programs. After four years of studying, exams, research and rotations, this is an ending as well as a new beginning – and a very big deal.

“We want to make it perfect for our students,” said Tacha Lyons, assistant registrar with the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. 

To that end, Lyons once spent every night for a month crafting a banner out of red, white and blue streamers that spelled out “Match Day.” Each 10-foot-tall letter was cut out of white streamers, then taped and glued onto the red and blue strips. This is the kind of special touch you’ll find at both events.

This year, College of Medicine – Tucson students will open gold boxes containing their match letters. They’ll take the stage to walk-up songs they specifically requested while flameless fireworks sparkle.

Streamers make up a banner that reads “Match Day” in tall glass windows at the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.

Tacha Lyons, assistant registrar for UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, spent an entire month cutting, taping and gluing letters onto red and blue streamers for a special touch to Match Day decorations. (Courtesy of Tacha Lyons)

At the College of Medicine – Phoenix, a student-led flash mob will perform a choreographed dance number before the countdown to the 9 a.m. reveal. Then students will have to figure out how to open the “contraptions” that conceal their match letters. One year, the letters were hidden beneath potted succulents.   

“Our goal is to bring an unexpected and memorable touch to the event each year, keeping our students guessing and adding to the excitement of Match Day,” said Chartrand, whose husband is a third-year medical student at the College of Medicine – Phoenix.

From humble beginnings 

Match Day hasn’t always been such an elaborate production at either school. It used to be a low-key affair tucked away in an auditorium. Ross Dubois, manager of special projects for the College of Medicine – Tucson, said he remembers thinking early on “we need to kick this up a notch.”

Did they ever.

Kate Chartrand, manager of student engagement for the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, talks to a group of people inside the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix.

Kate Chartrand, manager of student engagement for the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, has helped plan Match Day since 2021. The event outgrew its space on the Phoenix Bioscience Core and will be held at the Arizona Science Center this year.

“It’s been getting fancier and classier,” said Dubois, who is in his seventh year of Match Day planning.

Tucson’s Match Day hosts about 500 guests in front of iconic Old Main while Phoenix’s event – with an expected 600 people – outgrew its outdoor venue on the Phoenix Bioscience Core and will be held indoors at the Arizona Science Center a few blocks away. 

The logistics are staggering. Not only do plans need to be in place for rain (it sprinkled the night before Tucson’s Match Day last year and organizers were sweeping water off tables before the big event), but the harsh sun that can sneak up on non-desert dwellers. Dubois said large, circus-style tents on 10-foot stilts will take care of both issues this year.

Portable toilets need to be reserved. Parking and accessibility must be considered. Roads are shut down. Oh, and someone has to remember to request that the irrigation system be turned off exactly three days before the event so that heels don’t sink into the ground.

So many tiny details.     

“We strive to remain prepared for any situation recognizing that anything can come up,” said Virginia Zazueta-Blackman, who coordinates conferences and events for the College of Medicine – Tucson.

That includes emotional logistics, too. Not every student matches or gets their top choice. So, while it’s an exciting day for many, some might feel disappointed. It’s important to support everyone, Chartrand said. 

Crunch time and contraptions

While the first half of the year is filled with regular meetings, the week of the big event is frenzied. The Monday before – Match Monday, as it’s known – is when students find out if they paired somewhere. If not, it’s a mad scramble to find an available program or students might opt to spend a year doing research, Castillo said.

Two small succulents are in a clear glass planter with the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix logo on the front.

The College of Medicine – Phoenix has a tradition of creating “contraptions” that hide the Match Day letters. Students have to figure out how to get them. This “contraption” of succulents had the letters underneath.

Crunch time is the 24 hours leading up to Match Day, when colleges receive match data. The planning committees go into overdrive, sifting through the matches, printing out letters, double- and triple-checking placements and name spellings – and doing it all in secrecy.

Castillo said last year she and Richard Amini, MD, the College of Medicine – Tucson’s associate dean for student affairs, stuffed envelopes as students stared at her through her office window, straining to read her expression.

“I tried not to look at them,” she said, laughing. 

Some students even came up with excuses to wander through to grab snacks or coffee. This year, Castillo said, the office will be closed on Thursday until all the gold boxes are secured. 

By early Friday morning, match maps are ready, decorations are in place, contraptions are constructed, souvenir swag is assembled and Match Day unfolds. When the clock hits 9 a.m., students and their families are at the peak of excitement. That’s when Match Day planners can breathe again. 

“I love 9 o’clock because that means the stressful part is over,” Chartrand said. “You can just witness the students showing up for each other.”

It’s a great feeling, Dubois agreed.

"A lot of this is so nitty-gritty, and I can get frustrated about things that don’t go right or we’re behind schedule or there’s some new requirement. But that all goes away in that moment,” he said, then chuckled. “It’s short-lived.”

Indeed. Because once Match Day is over, it’s time to plan for next year.